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Christian
English Major
Writer
Thinker of odd things

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Humor and fear in Gary Larson's depictions of vampires (very long paper) [Monday, May. 01, 2006, 7:23 pm]

So I finished that paper, finally. I don't know why I'm posting it - but if anyone has a butt-load of time on their hands and wants to how Far Side comics can be incorporated into something academic - well, it's here for the reading:


The vampire has become one of the generic monsters in modern horror culture. Just as Frankenstein is the literary father of all zombies, so Dracula has become the poster boy for vampires. The images of these monsters have become so embedded in the culture, that even a crude drawing or caricature of one of them is usually enough for most people to identify them by name. It is assumed that the average person will have some knowledge of vampirical traits and characteristics, even if they have never actually read Dracula. And in many cases, this increasing popularity has changed the way in which vampires are viewed now compared to the images of them portrayed in Dracula.

As with many other well-known or generic figures of fantasy and literature, the ubiquitousness of vampires and their characteristics has often brought on parodies from certain comic sources. In order for a particular character or trait to be parodied, it must be ingrained far enough into the culture to be recognizable, or else the majority of people would not understand where the humor was meant to be found. The humor can only be effective if the reader holds enough of an understanding of vampirical traits to “get” the joke. For example, Gary Larson, author of “The Far Side” comic strips, often bases his humor on applying well-known human characteristics (generally with the intention of mocking them) to animals or other non-human organisms. While there are a variety of feasible examples of this in his work, it is interesting to note how often he parodies monsters such as vampires and zombies, often employing other recognizable elements from the original stories of Dracula and Frankenstein.

Although this comic source accurately implies that vampires are well-known enough to be parodied in this culture, it may also be interesting to speculate on why Gary Larson enjoys or feels the need to use monsters as the targets of his puns, considering the types of characters he usually uses. Is it because he does not take vampires or vampirical characteristics seriously? Or, perhaps a childhood fear of monsters has caused him to research them more as an adult, and therefore understand enough about them to find humor in their descriptions. Despite his tongue-in-cheek writing style, the introduction to his first “Far Side Gallery” suggests that the idea of monsters has been with him for quite some time:

"As a young boy, I was plagued with an overactive imagination - compounded by
the fact that we lived in a house with your standard, monster-infested
basement....My task nearly completed, I would begin my quick ascent back to the world of the living. And then, as it had countless times before, it would happen....the lights would go off. Engulfed in blackness, I would scramble my way to the top of the stairs only to find the door held firmly shut. From the other
side, where the light switch was controlled, I would hear my older brother’s voice
begin to chant: “It’s coming for you, Gary! It’s coming! Do you hear it? Do you hear it breathing, Gary?” Unbeknownst to my parents the deep grooves in that side of the door were not caused by the dog..." (Larson 1, page 5).

Does Gary Larson’s mocking style of humor help him de-vilify these monsters, thus helping to calm his own personal fears? Is he trying to decrease the power of these figures of horror?

Perhaps some analysis of his vampire-related cartoons is in order. On the one hand, Larson does to vampires what he often does to other figures such as animals, flowers, aliens, and superheroes - he gives them embarrassingly human problems to deal with, while keeping them in the context of their particular recognizable characteristics. For example, in image (A) we see a vampire at a baggage claim, reacting in shock to his damaged coffin that he has come to pick up. This image is humorous because it puts an extremely abnormal, non-human creature into a normal human situation, only with a vampirical twist - he is picking up a coffin instead of a suitcase, as if it were a perfectly normal thing to do at a baggage claim. Gary Larson often seems to base his humor on the “what if?” question. What if vampires lived and acted like human beings do? How would their particular traits be carried over into human life, and what aspects of their lifestyles would be similar or different from ours?

Image (B) shows us a comical picture of two young vampires getting a last warning from a father as they are embarking on a date. Obviously in a book such as Dracula, vampires behave so starkly different from humans that the idea of them going on dates at all is funny. Again, Larson finds humor by mixing a little bit of vampirism with typical human behavior. Those who understand the basics of vampirical characteristics will be able to tie it into the human behavior portrayed as well, and find the humor in the cartoon. Cartoons (C) and (D) also portray vampires engaging in human-like activity, only with certain vampirical traits substituted for human characteristics.

In image (D), one can pick up a few of the subtle details that Larson uses to mix the vampire traits with human ones: the idea of a vampire watching TV and wearing glasses are funny, because they are human characteristics, but the picture of bats on the wall, and the vampire’s claws resting comfortably on the armrest of his chair add a bit of vampirical irony to the scene.

The question here becomes: is Larson intending to make fun of/de-vilify vampires, or is he simply using them as another channel through which to mock human behavior? On the one hand, we as humans can perhaps pick up on things we hadn’t noticed before, when we see ourselves parodied by fantastical creatures. Showing vampires gawking at women, watching TV, having parties, and traveling is a way to view mundane, ordinary things in a comical light. Somehow the idea of a man getting into an accident because he spotted a woman can be seen as that much more ridiculous when viewed through the eyes of a vampire, and a woman with an absurdly long neck. Putting a different perspective on something we often don’t think about can show us something about ourselves.

In other instances, however, Larson clearly uses a knowledge of the vampire myth to poke fun at them, and perhaps even strip them of their power to evoke fear. Image (F) shows a “vamp-cow” emerging from a coffin, in order to “feed on the milk of the living.” Larson often uses wimpy-looking creatures such as cows, pigs, chickens, other birds, cave men, or even nerds, to mock certain established cultural characters or behaviors (the cover of his third Far Side Gallery shows a cow posing as the Mona Lisa). In this way, he may very well be helping himself to conquer his fear of monsters - by partnering their scary characteristics with extremely non-threatening animals such as cows, Larson de-vilifies the vampire in his own mind, and in the minds of the readers.

Obviously in order to understand why Larson’s vampire comics are funny, one must have a basic understanding of the characteristics he is punning on in the first place. Vampire traits have become so inseparable from the vampires themselves, and are so well-established in modern culture, that it is worth while to wonder how and why these particular characteristics
were given to the vampires. Bram Stoker was not the first person to write about vampires, and he did not dream up their traits on his own. The vampires’ inability to reflect in mirrors is one such trademark (image E), as Jonathan Harker discovers in Dracula:

Suddenly I felt a hand on my shoulder, and heard the Count’s voice saying to me, “Good-morning.” I started, for it amazed me that I had not seen him, since the reflection of the glass covered the whole room behind me...I turned to the glass again to see how I had been mistaken. This time there could be no error, for the man was close to me, and I could see him over my shoulder. But there was no reflection of him in the mirror! (Stoker, page 50).

Dracula later hurls the “wretched” looking-glass out the window, causing it to shatter on the rocks. Of all the traits to give a monster, why the inability to reflect? Where does this characteristic come from, and why has it become popular enough to be parodied? It is actually assumed that a European outbreak of rabies is what caused the vampire myth to build. Vampires have many characteristics in common with those who are infected with rabies, and perhaps the horror of vampirism simply arose from the inability to explain an illness medically.

Those infected with rabies are often very sensitive to light, reflections, and strong smells (such as garlic). They also tend to become very ferocious, unstable, and develop a very voracious sexual appetite. Also, just like the blood-sucking myth of vampirism, rabies is often spread by biting – in some cases from animals such as wolves, bats, or rats – also commonly associated with the vampire.
With that in mind, it is odd that a simple misunderstanding of rabies could have developed into a horror genre whose characteristics have become such common knowledge –
common enough to be mocked. While the origins of vampire stories are centuries old, one could speculate that the reasons for developing this myth in the first place somehow coincide with the reasons that comic-writers such as Gary Larson also choose to parody them. In either case, it is an issue of finding a way to alleviate fear. If the assumptions about rabies are correct, then those who first brought about the term “vampire” probably did it to turn the fear that they had into something more understandable, which could be named. As scary as the thought of blood-sucking monsters is (and was at the time as well), it quite probably would have been less frightening to people than the thought of ferocious, blood-sucking people who were afraid of light and reflections, and who seemed possessed with an illness that no one understood. Once this type of people had been explained supernaturally and identified as a separate “group” with certain traits, other people would at least feel as though they understood why these “vampires” did the things they did, even if the origins of the condition weren’t entirely known. They could also be viewed in light of the classic “good vs. evil” story, with very select weapons and format for ending their lives and powers. One of the greatest causes of fear is simply the unknown - and this sort of labeling can alleviate fear, because even if it is completely untrue, it can give people a false sense of understanding - and in the case of fear, even false understanding is more comforting than being utterly in the dark.

On a far less drastic scale, Gary Larson’s tale of his early fears of monsters and dark basements, while humorous, most probably has at least some foundation in fact. Assuming that many of Larson’s cartoons are indeed products of a childhood fear overcome, his treatment of these objects of fear can be seen in light of the events which led to the start of the vampire myth.

Perhaps a certain quest for normalcy is at the heart of each case. By drawing vampires engaging in human-like activities, Larson is stripping them of much of their power to create fear. It’s as though he is sending the message that, “these monsters look scary and deadly, but they really aren’t all that different from us in their everyday lives, and have the same types of problems that we do.” In this case, he does not want to believe that there is a race of monsters that is so drastically different from human beings, and therefore dangerous to little boys who have to get firewood from dark basements. On the other hand, one can assume that those who first attributed rabies symptoms to vampirism did want to believe in this supernatural race, because it was less frightening than not knowing what to believe in.
Gary Larson apparently experienced a fear of the unknown as a child, which is probably why humor helped him out later in life. The reason he feared the lights going out was because he couldn’t see anything, and therefore didn’t know what was there. Author Paul Lewis makes his own observations about the relationship between humor, fear, and the unknown:

Faced with the threatening, the unfamiliar, with our own unconscious terrors and fantasies, we can recoil or advance. . . .if, in advancing, our minds are open to every scrap of information, every dream of meaning, to the relief of laughter and
the concentration of fear, we may grow by reaching into the unknown. (Lewis,
325)

Laughter creates relief. In terms of image (D), the blood that is mentioned on the television can be seen as the representation of fear in the cartoon. The idea of a creature drinking blood is naturally repulsive to most humans. However, once the cartoon is understood, the “concentration of fear” gives way to the “relief of laughter,” once we realize that there is nothing in the image to be afraid of, and that the author is clearly not taking vampires seriously in writing what he does.
Comparing his current career to his humble beginnings, it would be safe to say that Gary Larson has indeed “advanced” in terms of his treatment of what was unknown to him as a child. Perhaps he hopes to help others see this fear in a different light by mocking what once scared him.
“Incongruity” is one of the key terms in Lewis’s article, in which he looks at the balance between humor and fear in fiction. The definition given for this word is: “a mismatch or conflict
between what is expected and what is actually experienced.” Interestingly, while terror and laughter seem like they should be diametrically opposed on the emotional spectrum, they are indeed both reactions to stimulus that is unexpected. Jokes and humorous stories are themselves products of some type of incongruity. We perceive them as funny because certain words or events are used in ways in which they normally aren’t. No one would laugh at a joke that could be predicted word for word, or contained words that all made sense and turned out exactly the way the reader (or hearer) would expect it to. Embarrassing moments are funny because they do not happen very often, and go against the ways in which people generally try to behave. Riddles generally involve some kind of word play, in which the answer somehow involves a double meaning of a word, or perhaps distorts a word or phrase to make it sound like another similar one.

On the same token, we fear things that are out of the ordinary, but not in a humorous way. Scary movies make us jump when something takes place that is unexpected, and tension arises when we do not know what will happen next in a story. Even scary movies that seem predictable can be tense, because there is always the chance that something unexpected and therefore frightening will happen. We are more likely to feel let down at the end of a movie if the tension that was created did not lead to something that we felt was unexpected enough.
As Lewis says towards the beginning of his essay:

The very incongruities that can shock or frighten us can also, seen from a slightly different vantage point, or after a moment’s consideration, make us laugh. (Lewis, 309)

He also asks whether we laugh at grim scenes as a means of forgetting about them, or to help us cope with their meaning. While it is doubtful that anything in Larson’s selected vampire comics will shock anyone (especially those who understand the basics of vampire traits), the very idea of pairing objects of fear with humorous situations may be slightly surprising and unexpected at first. One of the main reasons his comics are funny is because certain beings or things are placed in situations that are unexpected, doing or experiencing things that would otherwise seem very commonplace. Since we are not used to seeing vampires portrayed in this way (for example, having an embarrassing moment, image E), we are brought face-to-face with the incongruity of humor as applied to an object that is generally seen as evocative of fear.
Larson is not attempting to scare the reader the way he was scared by his brother as a child. He has chosen to view creatures that had been created as objects of supernatural terror, as almost normal beings with the same kinds of issues that humans have to deal with. Attempting to understand vampires in this way de-vilifies their horrific characteristics, and makes them easier to relate to for a short while. And after all, if we can find some things in common with these creatures and ourselves, they can’t be all that scary, can they?

Certainly Larson may have his own reasons for incorporating monsters into his comics. Perhaps after his childhood he grew into a horror movie buff and simply became so bombarded with images of vampires and zombies that they fit into all the rest of the well-known cultural things he mocks, because they permeated his mind in the same way that all his other material for inspiration did. Or perhaps he simply wanted to read more about these monsters as a means of increasing his knowledge about them – the less unknown they were, the less fear-inducing they would be. Regardless of his own background, his choice of objects to poke fun at says a lot about the relationship between fear and humor. Not only can humor reduce fear, but it can also prevent it. Once we have Gary Larson’s comical images of vampires in our heads, it will probably be harder to take them seriously enough to fear them in the future. Fear is a serious thing, and those who use humor as effectively as Gary Larson should be admired for their wit, and ability to contradict the images of fear that we have come to be familiar with in this culture. Paul Lewis says, “…we may grow by reaching into the unknown.” Using things that are not entirely understood (such as Dracula himself, who was a very mysterious character in the book) as the objects of humor, Larson reaches into the unknown and finds much to laugh at there.

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wander -- travel

Miss anything?

Vitality - Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2009
Soulfest 2009 - Sunday, Aug. 02, 2009
Politics and Poverty - Friday, Jul. 24, 2009
Michael Jackson - Monday, Jun. 29, 2009
Elegy for Spotty - Wednesday, Jun. 24, 2009